To gain an inside look at the engineering and deployment of Australia’s National Broadband Network, Utility spoke to Kathrine Dyer, Executive General Manager, National Deployment Support and Enablement, Network Engineering & Deployment at nbn.

Utility talked to Ms Dyer about a range of topics, ranging from her career path to nbn and her role in the rollout, to the project’s progress, connection technologies and what it takes to be a leader working on such a large and publicly visible project.

Kathrine Dyer

The path to the nbn

Before working at nbn, Ms Dyer worked supporting fibre deployment in the private sector, a role that, at the time, was considered “niche” and potentially career­limiting.

“Prior to nbn I worked in various roles at Telstra for almost 17 years,” said Ms Dyer.

“In the years leading up to my move to nbn, I took on a leadership role within a new division to support the deployment of fibre into Greenfields estates.

“I was told by many people around me – not unkindly, but very matter of fact – that a female would never be appointed into that type of leadership role and that I was jeopardising my career by moving into a niche area.

“I was very pleased that Telstra provided me with the opportunity, and taking on and thriving in that role was a crucial milestone in my professional journey.”

Joining nbn at a time of upheaval, Ms Dyer had to hit the ground running and played an important role in establishing the company’s business model.

“I joined nbn to establish the New Developments (Greenfields team) in 2010,” she said. “This was six weeks before nbn became the Infrastructure Provider of Last Resort, and I quickly had to establish the company’s business model. Joining this early was a significant opportunity and challenge for me.

I had moved from an organisation which was established (and large) to one that was rapidly working to establish itself – the paradigm could not have been more different and this really challenged me professionally and personally.”

Ms Dyer says that the significance of the NBN to Australia and the challenges and opportunities it provides were part of what drew her to the project.

“The nbn is a nation­building project, it is connecting all Australian communities to fast broadband and helping to bridge the digital divide.

“With a focus on getting under­served areas connected as quickly as possible and applying a no one gets left behind approach, the task to rollout the nbn network across our 7.6 million square km land mass is huge.

“This presents challenges and opportunities and for people in our field that’s incredibly exciting to be a part of.

“I also had a keen interest in fibre deployments to Greenfield estates, nbn offered me the opportunity to establish a new business on a large scale – a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Working on a nation-­building infrastructure project

Ms Dyer’s current role with nbn involves leading a team responsible for a variety of functions to ensure the effective engineering and deployment of the rollout.

“My current role is Executive General Manager Network Engineering & Deployment,” she said. “The role covers a range of national functions, which support the planning, design and build of the nbn.”

Ms Dyer has a team of General Managers who run their own national functions. The areas that the team covers include:

  • Pre­construction activities for Greenfield builds, such as new housing estates, apartment buildings, telecommunications alongside new road builds
  • Introduction of new technology within the design and build program
  • Land access and stakeholder engagement to support design and build activities
  • Providing field enablement tools, including IT platforms
  • Engagement with power utilities nationally
  • Determining the early engagement approach for design and build for complex premises or areas, such as shopping centres, airports and business parks.

Ms Dyer’s achievements at nbn have been significant and there are several that she is particularly proud of.

“Having the opportunity to establish new teams on multiple occasions and seeing them become successful has been a highlight. A specific example was in 2012.

“I was asked to look at how nbn could operationalise land access powers utilising the Low Impact Facilities Determination (LiFD) to speed up the Brownfields rollout.

“Specifically, around lead-­in work to properties and the internal cabling of apartment buildings. Utilising land access to support construction activities in a mass market required a lot of external consultation with industry, the Government and stakeholders impacted by our proposed strategy.

“I prepared a strategy which required careful implementation internally and externally to ensure the program was effective and risks managed. The strategy was implemented and is very successful in streamlining construction activity and the delivery of connections to customers.”

According to Ms Dyer, an awareness of the significance of the rollout is amongst the essential qualities for those working on the project in leadership roles.

“At nbn we are very much one team who are all focused on delivering the network to eight million homes and businesses by 2020.

“Additionally, as a government business enterprise, our stakeholders are ultimately all Australians, so we have to approach the work with this in mind and ensure that we set clear goals, measure progress, take accountability and prioritise the right things.

“For me personally, it is being able to manage the challenges of a complex portfolio whilst ensuring I am clearing the way for my team’s success.

“It is also important for me to provide a clear linkage to my group’s purpose to how we support the rollout of the nbn network and how important this is to the company and Australia.”

When asked what she wished more people knew or understood about the NBN, Ms Dyer emphasised the real progress the organisation is making.

“This financial year we are targeting to double our rollout figures from last year. Already we have 2.5 million homes able to order a service. At June 30 last year this figure was just over 1.1 million. So we are learning every day and getting better and faster at building the network.

“The other thing people should know is that we have two enormous years ahead. We doubled our footprint of premises ready for service this year, and we plan to double that figure again next year.”

Making the most of network technology

Large amounts of work go into each nbn connection product before it is released and begins to be rolled out by contractors as part of the multi-technology mix.

Ms Dyer provided some insight into the process of preparing new technologies for inclusion in the rollout.

“The products are all developed with very detailed technical testing. We undertake vendor testing, site testing, environment tests, in-­field pilots and commercial pre­-launch tests.

“As an example, our soon to be released HFC offering has been undergoing seven months of in­field testing at hundreds of premises in Queensland.

“This of course is the last phase before go-­live so the pre work to get to this stage is significant.”

Ms Dyer said that the impact of each additional product release on her own role at nbn is dependent on the product in question.

“The impact depends on the product. However, generally speaking my group coordinates the design and build activities for business as usual deployment into the rollout program.

“My role within nbn is very specifically focused on enabling design and build and therefore I am part of the broader ecosystem relating to product launches.”

Currently, Ms Dyer’s team is working on progressing the nbn product roadmap and optimising the connection technologies used in the rollout.

“HFC is an exciting project that we launched in June and we have achieved excellent results in a pilot in Redcliffe, Queensland, where end users are receiving close to 100/40Mbps speeds,” said Ms Dyer.

“Getting more out of our existing networks is a key focus. On DOCSIS 3.0, our speed test in Blacktown achieved close to 400Mbps/50Mbps.

“We will launch HFC with DOCSIS 3.0 technology and progress to launching the Gigabit capable DOCSIS 3.1 technology in the second half of 2017,” said Ms Dyer. “We’re also doing the pre­work and testing for the launch of the second Sky Muster satellite.”

Ms Dyer said that it is important to note that the end-user experience, including the speeds actually achieved over the nbn network, depend on the technology over which services are delivered to the end user’s premises and some factors outside nbn’s control, like equipment quality, software, broadband plans, signal quality and how the end user’s service provider designs its network.

However, nbn has a number of initiatives underway to ensure that the HFC network is optimised for providing Australian premises with fast broadband.

“We are putting a lot more capacity into our HFC networks by substantially upgrading equipment at the exchange with state-­of-­the-­art DOCSIS 3.1 Cable Modem Termination Systems being installed,” she said.

“We are also re­-engineering the network in the field by conducting node­-splits, meaning fewer end­-users are on each node, but are being served with more capacity.

“DOCSIS 3.1 simply delivers far more capacity into the network by using the spectrum more efficiently (around 50 per cent more spectrally efficient).

“For nbn, the process of delivering DOCSIS 3.1 is relatively straightforward – we need to upgrade our CMTS to full DOCSIS 3.1 capability (by inserting DOCSIS 3.1 line­cards) – and we also need end-­users to have a DOCSIS 3.1 Network Termination Device connected to their modem.”

Node-­splitting will also be important in optimising the ratio of nodes to premises in the HFC network.

“On an HFC network, fibre is driven out from the exchange out into the streets and terminates at a powered ‘node’ from which a neighbourhood is then served by coaxial cable,” said Ms Dyer. “The capacity from each node is then shared by the users connected to it.

“We will be designing the new HFC network in such a way that there will be fewer users connected to each node than is currently the case in order to meet the needs of end­-users and deliver the plans we are selling to our RSPs.”

Also on Ms Dyer’s radar is fibre-­to­-the-­distribution point (FTTdp), another potential connection product, and how it may factor into the network.

“FTTdp is an exciting prospect for the company but it is a very new technology,” she said. “It is not currently being deployed anywhere in the world at scale.

“A lot more work needs to be done in terms of field testing of the equipment for Australian conditions. We also need to know more about the financials and the rollout logistics, but we’re currently expecting there will be some premises to be served by FTTdp.

“FTTdP has two big advantages. Most notably there is no need for mains power and secondly there is no need to run new Lead In Conduit to the property as the existing copper line is used.”

Leveraging industry expertise

Effective collaboration and a skilled workforce are vital for the success of the National Broadband Network rollout.

nbn is seeking to leverage Australia’s existing industry expertise in a number of ways, including a recent deal with Telstra to provide planning, design, construction and construction management services within the existing Telstra Hybrid Fibre­Coaxial (HFC) footprint.

According to Ms Dyer, this public­private cooperation has large benefits for the efficiency of the project, and the bottom line, deploying existing network expertise to the benefit of the project.

“Working with Telstra will enable nbn to deliver the HFC component of the nbn network in a time and cost efficient manner. nbn and Telstra have already begun work in several locations to switch Telstra HFC areas over to the nbn.”

Growing Australian expertise is also important for the project, with initiatives underway to increase the project’s workforce.

“To build and operate the nbn network, we estimate the skilled workforce available to our service delivery partners needs to grow by around 4,500 roles – nearly doubling the current number employed during peak construction in 2018.

“Through the Industry Workforce Development Program, nbn is committing nearly $40 million for industry skills training, awareness campaign, and developing a national skills register to help our construction partners recruit, train and develop employees across Australia. This is one of the largest drives in the telecommunications industry for some time.

“The program will target career starters, general job seekers and experienced telco workers who have vital skills and knowledge of the existing telecommunications network.”

Ms Dyer is enthusiastic about the opportunities working on the project can provide. She especially encourages women to get involved and, like her, not to be discouraged from pursuing career paths considered to be traditionally male-­dominated.

“As a senior leader at nbn, I would encourage females to consider nbn as a great career option,” she said.

Lauren brings a fresh approach to content. While she’s previously written for publications as diverse as Australian Geographic, The Border Watch and Girlfriend, she’s found her true passion in her current role as an editor in the world of energy and infrastructure trade magazines.

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